At an academy in East Harlem, a veteran musician who has played at places like Carnegie Hall includes Spanish and Mexican heritage in his nightly lessons.
It’s 8 p.m. when 7-year-old Juan Escamilla gets out of his guitar class. Still dressed in his school uniform with a burgundy tie, he also wears a big, toothless grin as he struggles to carry a guitar almost as tall as he is.
“Was the class hard?” his father Rene asks, chuckling. “Play me ‘La Bamba!’”
Juan sits down at a lunch table inside St. Paul School in East Harlem and quickly glides his chubby fingers up and downthe neck of his dad’s old acoustic, almost seamlessly playing the requested tune.
Juan is one of about 200 students ranging in age from 4 to 17 years old who learn to sing and play the violin, guitar, harp and trumpet at the 10-year-old Mariachi Academy of New York. Even a few adults are getting into the act with a new class just for them. As they’re learning the music, they’re also exploring Mexican culture. And the best part? It’s all for for free.
The academy was founded by musician Ramon Ponce, a fourth-generation mariachi (as members of a mariachi group are called) who wanted to bring traditional Mexican culture and music to children in New York, so they could reconnect with their backgrounds and embrace the traditions like he did as a child.
Ponce arrived in New York City from Puebla, Mexico when he was 12 years old, six months after his father relocated to the city to be a trumpet player for a mariachi group. Ponce says the plan was for him to stay in the city for one year, study music and English, then return to Mexico. Two years later he was accepted to LaGuardia Arts High School, and the family decided to stay in New York.
In 1991, Ponce, a guitar player, and his father, a trumpeter, created their own musical group, called Mariachi Real de Mexico. They started off playing local venues, but their group has since seen the stages of Carnegie Hall, Shea Stadium, and Gracie Mansion.
It was after local performances though when he got the idea to expand his talent into teaching, Ponce said. People often asked him and his father how they too could learn to play mariachi music.
“I used to teach classes in the basement of my house back then to about four or five students at that time,” Ponce says. “So I talked it over with my dad, and we thought it would be good if we could have a program where we could teach to more.”
So in 2002 Ponce contacted some mariachis he knew in California who had teaching experience, and they gave him advice. The same year he wrote a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Mariachi Academy of New York was born.
“Part of our mission is to help the community and help the children so they can be discovered, in a way, and so others can see the talent that’s out there,” Ponce said. “But most importantly to re-connect them through mariachi with their roots and traditions, because a lot of them sometimes don’t want to speak Spanish anymore.”
That’s why all of the classes are taught in Spanish, in hopes of helping the students re-connect with their language and be proud of it, he says. But he does speak English for students who don’t understand any Spanish or aren’t of Hispanic backgrounds.
Sonia Fernandez, a native of Ecuador, brought her son Erik to take mariachi lessons starting when he was 6 because she wanted him to have a positive activity after school. He is now 10 and plays the guitar, and Fernandez says she is happy to make the one-hour commute from Queens a couple of evenings a week because it has also helped Erik improve his Spanish.
The academy teaches various other instruments, including violin, guitar, harp and trumpet, as well as music theory. Ponce says students perform wearing Mexican-tailored mariachi outfits at local parades and festivals, depending on their skill levels, while the advanced class performs at an annual Mother’s Day fundraiser, their biggest event of the year.
In recent years the academy has been funded by the New York State Council on the Arts and holds its own fundraisers, which also serve as venues for students to perform.
Students like 7-year-old Juan aspire to become professional performers themselves. After playing “La Bamba,” he reaches his arms above his head while trying to tuck his guitar back in its case and contemplates his future.
“I would like to play one day for a concert or festival,” Juan says. “It’s nice to play because it’s really peaceful and you get to enjoy it, but I’m also a soprano in the singing choir, so I can do all that, too. There are too many choices.”